Boxing is a sport that is dominated by bar room talking points; comparisons between great fighters and the best and worst of eras. Are we in a boom now ? or, is the current crop just the best of a bad bunch ? Fight fans and the media regularly look back; sometimes through rose tinted glasses, sometimes waxing lyrical about the present generation, and sometimes, not really making a fair comparison.
We are though blessed with a sport that due to the general lack of tweaking with the original Marquis of Queensberry Rules and the fundamentals of the sport being largely unchanged (i.e. one on one gloved combat in a square, roped ring) allows us to make these personnel and era comparisons with some degree of confidence. Generally, after much debate the conclusions finally drawn are a function of personal preference or someone’s relevant generation but with some statistical back up or justification.
The golden era of the sport is said to be the 1930’s through to the 1950’s, certainly by the quality and depth of fighters that emerged from the great American depression of the 1920’s and the ending of the Second World War. But, there have been equally brilliant divisional eras like the heavyweights of the ’70’s and the Four Kings of the middleweight division in the ’80’s. These epochs can legitimately compare favourably to any era of the sport.
My guides on this have always been the depth and range of brilliant boxing literature available to compare the boxers and eras, but my ‘go to’ reference has been The Ring magazine – ‘The Bible of Boxing’ and world authority since 1922.
Over nearly a century The Ring has equally gone through ‘boom and bust’ with different ownerships and vogues, potential liquidation and now thriving in the digital era. Hopefully the additional threat of the COVID-19 outbreak still allows “the Bible” to prevail, and similarly our own Boxing News which remains the oldest world publication (predating The Ring by thirteen years) and the British authority on the domestic and world scene.
To this end, an occasional entry in The Undisputed’s LunchBox slot will be a look back at The Ring magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings (i.e. the boxers voted best in the world regardless of weight classification by The Ring panel of experts).
Let’s first take a look at the top ten in March 1990, some thirty years ago…
1. Julio Cesar Chavez, 2. Pernell Whitaker, 3. Michael Nunn, 4. Antonio Esparragoza, 5. Meldrick Taylor, 6. Buster Douglas, 7. Mike Tyson, 8. Azumah Nelson, 9. Raul Perez, 10. Virgil Hill.
Then, compare to the current top ten:
1. Canelo Alvarez, 2. Vasiliy Lomachenko, 3. Naoya Inoue, 4. Terence Crawford, 5. Oleksandr Usyk, 6. Errol Spence Jr, 7. Gennadiy Golovkin, 8. Juan Francisco Estrada, 9. Artur Beterbiev, 10. Manny Pacquiao.
So, what does this tell us about the current crop ? A number of the boxers in the rankings of 12th March 1990 have subsequently entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) in Canastota, upstate New York. Arguably the pick of the crop was Julio Cesar Chavez, who at the time of being ‘pound for pound’ king had a 67-0 win-loss record. He eventually finished on 107-6-2 (88 KO’s).
Compare that to the current ‘king’ – Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez on 53-1-2 (36 KO’s). On his current trajectory Alvarez will make a claim to be the greatest Mexican fighter of all time – but whether he will overtake Chavez’ popularity and accomplishments is debateable. Chavez back in 1990 was the standout ‘pound for pound’ king, with Pernell Whitaker some way behind on fights and accomplishment. However, Whitaker did in all intents and purposes win the hotly disputed draw when they finally met. Alvarez by contrast has a loss on his record and is widely regarded as losing the first fight to Gennadiy Golovkin. The numbers two, three and four in the log of 21st March 2020 – Lomachenko, Inoue and Crawford are a lot closer to Alvarez than anyone challenging Chavez in 1990.
So, does this make the present era have greater depth at the top ? It does on face value with four fighters vying for the pound for pound title. You would though have to look deeper into the respective divisions to establish this.
What is noticeable from the two logs is the greater globalisation of boxing now. The top ten of 1990 had six USA fighters, a number of them products of the legacy of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Virgil Hill, plus Mike Tyson who lost in the box-offs for those Games. There were three Hispanic fighters which would be the norm of the time, and one African in Azumah Nelson – a future member of the IBHOF and the greatest fighter to come from the African continent.
The rankings of March 2020 are largely a legacy of the post-1990 breakup of the Soviet Union. In Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, Gennadiy Golovkin and Artur Beterbiev, you have two Ukrainians, a Kazak and a Russian. All with a small number of professional fights but a lengthy and elite amateur pedigree, with substantial Olympic hardware to show. This impact has taken almost thirty years to trickle through to the elite professional level, but the amateur pedigree of these boxers allied to their pro record stands with anyone’s accomplishments in the 1990 top ten.
These are joined by a Japanese in Naoya Inoue and Fillipino in Manny ‘PacMan’ Pacquiao, giving the 2020 listing greater global credibility and reach.
A notable omission from the current pound for pound list is a heavyweight champion. Despite the current ‘golden era’ of the heavyweights neither Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder or Anthony Joshua can break the top ten. This may show the current strength of the other divisions, or certainly that they contain elite fighters. The rankings of 1990 include a recently defeated Mike Tyson and his conqueror James ‘Buster’ Douglas, largely by virtue of that victory. It may be that the current heavyweight division is stronger but The Ring magazine thinks there are other strengths in boxing right now.
Ironically the one heavyweight to feature in the current pound for pound list is Oleksandr Usyk, purely on this basis of his accomplishments in the lighter cruiserweight division. Currently he remains an untested ‘blown up’ cruiserweight.
One boxer worthy of inclusion in the current pound for pound list is Manny Pacquiao at number ten. He is a ‘world champion’ at eight different weights from fly to welterweight and lock-in for the Hall of Fame. This in a way shows the quality in the current log compared to that in 1990. The number ten of the time Virgil Hill was an elite light heavyweight, Olympic silver medallist and undefeated 27-0, but that pales into insignificance with PacMan’s 62-7-2 (39 KO’s) record and accomplishments.
Perhaps this steers us towards the final conclusion on comparing these two lists: that the low ranking of Pacquiao and coupled with the omission of Fury, Wilder and Joshua et al, adding in boxers on the fringe of the list like Josh Taylor, Roman ‘Chocolotito’ Gonzalez, Callum Smith and Wanheng Menayothin at strawweight with a 54-0 win-loss record, shows that boxing in 2020 is in a fairly healthy state when comparing to March 1990.
Look out here for further editions of this feature.